Twelfth Night Commentary

The fluctuating opening lines penned in the 16th century by William Shakespeare in his world-famous play, Twelfth Night, introduce a prominent and recurring theme of love and its virtues and imperfections. The verses suggest that perceptions of love are unstable and can vary according excess or lack of affection for an individual.

The scene commences with a monologue spoken by the Duke Orsino of Illyria, who is in a state of doubt regarding his true feelings towards the idea of love.

He goes back and forth between the fantastical and sweet and the sickening and strainful. Full of rich figurative language, extended metaphors, and most importantly, alternating tones, this extract of Twelfth Night accurately illustrates the vacillating mindset of the duke in a short passage.

Quite appropriately, the first word in the entire play is speculative: “If”, which is a conditional clause, used in uncertainty and hypothetical situations. Having a hesitant word open the play truly enforces the eraticism that Orsino is experiencing, before the reader has even had the chance contextualize the word.

Orsino then launches into his speech, discussing the positive implications of love through a very powerful examination of music, love and food. “If music be the food of love, play on,” is an analogy that demonstrates the relationship between music as fuel for love and compares it to the necessity of food for the human body. However, he almost immediately negatively changes the anticipated mood by asking for “excess of it” so his need for love (and music) may surfeit, “sicken, and so die”.

The metaphor presents the idea of over-indulgence of love and its impact on the attitude of an individual.

Furthermore, Shakespeare places emphasis on certain points through multiple forms of distinctive punctuation. The exclamation point used in “That strain again!” adds to the intensity of the fluctuating atmosphere and paints Orinso as a moody character. In addition, the effective employment of sibilance within the first five lines draws attention and slows down the reading, leaving time for comprehension. As Shakespeare describes the “sweet sound” of the music, the reader perceives the positive connotation of the word “sweet”. However, the “s” sound is associated with evil (snakes) and the juxtaposition in such a simple phrase further enforces the Orsino’s uncertainty. It is crucial to remember that Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be heard, meaning that techniques such as alliteration are evident throughout the piece.

Moreover, the conflicted tone used throughout the passage is expanded through an extended metaphor contrasting the duke’s emotions, the feeling of loves and ebbing waves. The use of “sea…fall·[and]” create an image of a tide that comes and goes, comparable to both the duke’s opinion, and the ups and downs of a loving relationship. A master of clever diction, Shakespeare additionally employs a diverse vocabulary with negative connotations that far surpasses any positive vocabulary. Abundance of words such as “sicken…die…strain· fall·odour… [and]…abatement” overpower the ideas of “music…love·[and]…fantastical”. This unconsciously impresses that the duke regards love in a more undesirable than pleasurable fashion, despite the fact that he ends his speech positively (“It alone is high fantastical.”). Finally, though it is understood that Orsino is suffering from a form of love-sickness, it is curious that the dame he desires is not mentioned at any point throughout the opening speech. The fact that he does not comment on the lady or any of her qualities leads the reader to believe that Orsino is in fact in love with the idea of being in love, rather than a specific individual.

Shakespeare expertly weaves a myriad of literary devices and meaningful techniques into his play so that he constructs layers of depth, themes and meanings. Each word is purposefully chosen to depict fluctuating perceptions of love and possible causes for seeing it as a “fancy” or as a “strain”. Orsino’s opening passage proves him moody and indecisive and effectively sets the mood for the following scene.

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